High school students prepare for dental careers

Woodhaven student group at TeamSmile volunteer event

Above: Dawn Damron and students from Woodhaven High School volunteer with TeamSmile to provide free dental care to children.

Like many areas across the country, Michigan dental practices are grappling with a shortage of dental assistants. Parts of Wayne County, where Woodhaven High School is located, are designated as a dental care health professional shortage area. “Dental care is at a high demand,” says Dawn Damron, RDH, M.A., dental sciences instructor at Woodhaven-Brownstown School District, a position she has held since 2009.

Previously, Damron worked as a dental hygienist at a private practice. Since moving into dental education, Damron has served as an advisor for the National Technical Honor Society and HOSA-Future Health Professionals. She is also a member of the advisory committee at Wayne County Community College District, the marketing team at Downriver Career Technical Consortium, and the DANB/DALE Foundation Entry Level Dental Assisting Curriculum Task Force.

The dental sciences program at Woodhaven High School was developed by Mary Brockschmidt many years ago, says Damron. “Mary started the program and I give her all the credit. She really did the legwork to create a great curriculum.” 

Today, that curriculum is a two-year program that brings in students from nine different districts. Damron says the program is rigorous, covering anatomy, radiography, chairside assisting, and front office skills. The program also incorporates a variety of learning activities, such as videos and worksheets, as well as online courses from the DALE Foundation. During the program, students can take the DANB exams and when they graduate, they are eligible to earn DANB’s National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) certification. 

“I was very excited to incorporate the DALE Foundation courses and DANB exams into our program,” Damron says. “Being able to graduate with a certification is huge. It helps employers to verify the knowledge of the students, and it gives students confidence when they start their first job.”

The program focuses on preparing students for the workforce and giving them employability skills. Several colleges and universities in the area grant credits to incoming students for completing the program, which gives them a head start in furthering their education. “We are providing students with alternative routes to career paths,” Damron explains. “The latest follow-up survey data shows that 70% of our students are working in the field.”

Launching dental careers

Two of Damron’s former students are advocates for the program and since graduating have taken their careers to new heights. 

Former student Madison Thomas will graduate this year from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry and fulfill her dream of becoming a dentist. Thomas says her interest in the program was first piqued because her aunt and cousin worked in dentistry and “they were the only people that I talked to who loved their jobs.” 

When she started the program, she quickly realized how much she enjoyed the classes and, in the process, built her skills and confidence. “I found my passion,” Thomas says. “The skills I mastered are worth more than my whole high school education combined, in my book.”

Damron’s influence and support made an impact on Thomas and helped her realize what she could achieve. Securing her first job as a dental assistant was a point of pride. “I walked into a local dentist office with the resume [Damron] helped me create, and I landed a job as an assistant immediately,” Thomas recounts. “The whole office was so impressed with what I was being taught and how I was able to use my skills. I would have never thought I would be here with a million opportunities and a passion for dentistry, but this class will do that to you.”

Rachel Weatherhead is another former student of Damron’s program. Today, Weatherhead is a Doctor of Dental Surgery and runs her own dental practice in Woodhaven, Michigan. “Before I became a dentist, I took the dental occupations class at Woodhaven High School in 2007 and 2008,” Weatherhead says. “That was the first time I was exposed to a career in dentistry and what that would look like. I want to thank everybody who worked so hard at putting on this program. I think it’s a huge benefit and I encourage everyone to look into it.”

Supporting students’ journeys

When it comes to preparing students for a career in dentistry, it’s not just about teaching them what they need to know from a textbook. Damron says supporting students emotionally and building their confidence is a big part of the work she does.

“One of my former students said she really struggled with feeling confident at first,” Damron reflects. “I’ve seen this with a lot of my students. I don’t know if it’s fear or being uncomfortable with accountability. But as students go through the program, I see their mindset shift and they start to grow.”

With all the changes and challenges of the recent years, Damron says many students, even the most hard-working ones, struggle with their emotions and uncertainty about the future. “Some of my students are very unsure of their futures and they deal with that anxiety,” she explains. “Even my students who are high achievers sometimes feel overwhelmed and need someone to listen to them.”

Damron says she strives to be there for every student and point them to resources and opportunities. One of those opportunities, she notes, is earning DANB certification when they graduate. “That certification will show that they’ve met a standard, which is something that employers can see,” she says. “I am so grateful these students have this program to set them up for success.”